The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

July 13, 2012

Paterno, Sandusky, and YOUR Ethics

By Steve Motenko

Outraged about the Penn State situation?  There are lessons for the workplace here – lessons for you beyond the rush of righteous indignation.

Is there anything going on in your workplace that you’re uncomfortable with?  Any policy, or individual behavior, or group norm that you see as wrong?  Don’t gloss over the question.  Consider it for a moment.  If you find something, why aren’t you speaking up?

Now of course your concern won’t be as egregious as what we now know happened at Penn State.  The Louis Freeh report showed legendary coach Joe Paterno knew for years that Jerry Sandusky was abusing young boys.  Paterno lied about it and did nothing to protect the tragic victims.

But was that because he was an evil man? Penn State’s athletic program was in some ways a beacon of morality for college football.  Paterno was renowned for his integrity and judgment.  He worried that negative publicity could destroy the futures of his beloved players.  He chose to protect them, and protect his program which had served hundreds of promising athletes so well, rather than protecting the young boys whose lives his assistant and friend was ruining.  I’m sure that Paterno also was choosing – however misguidedly – to protect his friend.

This I know:  Joe Paterno faced an ethical dilemma, and he made a choice.  It’s easy, from a righteous distance, to talk about how wrong that choice was.  What’s more difficult – and infinitely more important – is to explore for ourselves what went wrong in the process of arriving at this choice.

Someone once said “Not to decide is to decide.”  Choosing not to act is still choosing.  Where in your life are you choosing not to act – and why?

Making positive ethical choices is nearly impossible unless we follow these steps.  I urge you to use the Penn State “teaching opportunity” to step up your ethical integrity:

  • Be clear about what’s most important to you.  Declare your Core Values. (As a coach, I have a process for doing so. Email me at for a copy).
  • Keep your Core Values list in the forefront – remind yourself of them on a regular basis.
  • Share these Core Values with others.  Make a commitment to yourself and those you love and trust that Core Values integrity is an absolute priority in your life.  If you are not your word – especially around the values at the core of your life – who are you?
  • Regularly scan your environment – your workplace, your personal life, your community, even the planet – for anything going on that violates your Core Values.
  • When you find such violations, face into your fear and transcend despair – with the support of your trusted community – and act.

If the Penn State disaster encourages even a few of us to move from righteous indignation toward embracing our own responsibility to create a more ethical world, this horrific tragedy will have served a higher purpose.

In addition to co-hosting The Boss Show and coaching executives, Steve formerly led workshops for the nonprofit Center for Ethical Leadership.  He can be reached at


About the Author

Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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